A Work & Life Article

The Two Faces of Stress

Take the stress test!

Not all stress is bad for you. Stress is considered to have a positive influence if it enhances your ability to meet or exceed an identified goal. For example, getting married, having a baby, buying a home, or starting a new job are often associated with positive outcomes. Because they are meaningful, they require a lot of personal energy and investment. In these situations, stress acts as a motivator.

Alternatively, stress has a negative influence if it impedes your ability to balance demands against resources. This kind of stress prevents the individual from managing responsibilities effectively. The end result is "distress."

Although the source of stress varies, the impact of stress does not. Whether it comes from a single life-event such as the loss of a loved one, or daily obstacles such as being pressed for time, stranded in congested traffic and noise, robbed of self-confidence or a sense of control over work priorities, persistent negative stress takes a toll on your health.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Stress

There is a documented physical component to stress. High levels of stress have been associated with both heart disease and cancer, as well as neck and back pain. Other stress associations include increased blood pressure, increased use of nicotine and alcohol, and increased levels of adrenaline. Recent studies suggest seventy to eighty percent of all illnesses seen in medical practice are either caused by or made worse by stress. Yet, few doctors have been formally trained in either recognizing or treating stress.

The Benefits of Stress Management

Research has indicated that individuals at risk for heart disease and cancer have a better chance at recovery when individuals implement a successful stress management plan. In fact, in a study by Duke University Medical Center reported by USA Today in 1997, a stress-management program helped heart patients reduce their risk of heart attacks or the need for surgery by seventy-four percent.

A good indication that further stress management techniques need to be developed is when stress and “living on the edge” become a way of life.

When the stress level is manageable or when we have developed effective coping mechanisms, the impact of stress on our lives is minimal. Unfortunately, we do not always recognize the degree of impact. In addition to "feeling out of control" in our lives, unmanageable levels of stress may actually cause or exacerbate new or already existing problems in totally unrelated areas such as relationship difficulties, parenting difficulties, financial concerns, addiction and work-related issues.

Regardless of the current level of stress in your life or how effective your coping mechanisms have been in the past, everyone can benefit from improving their stress management practices.

Stress may be linked to a particular area in your life, however, stress is often a function of several things including life adjustments, daily routines, unrealistic expectations and relationships. The following coping mechanisms may be useful if you determine that stressors in your life need to be tolerated.

1. Managing your stress is enhanced by maintaining a healthy mind and body. This includes:

  • A nutritious diet
  • A regular exercise routine
  • An adequate amount of sleep on a consistent basis
  • Activities which you consider relaxing.
  • A healthy mind may be enhanced by relying on supportive friends and family and rewarding yourself with "free time" when you accomplish your goals.

2. Setting "realistic expectations" for yourself. This is true in both the workplace and personal relationships.

3. The final strategy for stress management is "maximizing your resources." You have a limited supply of time and energy. These limits may vary depending on your lifestyle and your ability to set limits. As you work to maximize your time, remember that no one is going to give you more. Build in relaxation time to your schedule. In setting short-term and long-term goals, make them as objective as possible.

In order for these skills to be effective in managing your stress, they need to be utilized continuously as your level of stress fluctuates. In fact, a 2002 study on stress suggested that the most effective 'stress managers' are those that have incorporated stress management techniques into their daily living. This means that taking "stress breaks" throughout the day and finding other ways to routinely take care of yourself are more healthy than the "all or nothing" approach of stress management that many fast-paced individuals use today.

For more information on effective stress management contact your Employee Assistance Counselor at 202-628-5100.


Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Sapolsky, Robert, W.H. Freeman and Co., June 1998.

Inner Simplicity: 100 Ways to Regain Peace and Nourish Your Soul, St. James, Elaine, Hyperion, May 1995.

Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, Breathnach, Sara Ban, Warner Books, November 1996.

Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter,
St. James, Elaine, Hyperion, May 1994.

Emotional Intelligence, Goleman, Daniel, Ph.D., Bantam Books, July 1991.

Healthy Pleasures, Ornstein, Robert, Ph.D. and Sobel, David, MD, Persues Publishing, May 1990.

Written by Christina Kominoth, LCSW-C, CEAP
Edited by Mary Sue McClain

This material may be reproduced without permission provided that it is not modified or altered in any way and acknowledgment is made to COPE, Inc.